From New England to Atlanta to Indianapolis, the focus was not on football on Friday. It was on, not surprisingly, coronavirus tests.
The Patriots cancelled practice Friday and later placed centre James Ferentz on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He became the fifth player on the team to test positive for the virus.
With the Colts, there were four positive tests that, when retested, came up negative. The Falcons returned to their facility one day after abandoning it when they had a second positive.
New England (2-2) already twice had the original Week 5 matchup against Denver postponed following four earlier positive coronavirus tests by players, including quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The game is scheduled for Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but now could be in jeopardy.
“I don’t really know the answer to that,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said when asked about finally playing the Patriots. “We’re under the assumption and understanding that this game’s going to go off on time. And anything that happens otherwise will happen when it happens.”
Newton and Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, returned to practice this week for the first time since testing positive for the virus. Newton missed New England’s loss at Kansas City on Oct. 5 after his Oct. 2 positive test. He was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday. Gilmore, who tested positive on Oct. 7, was activated from the list Thursday. Practice squad player Bill Murray also returned from the COVID-19 list Thursday.
Defensive tackle Byron Cowart, who tested positive on Oct. 11, was joined on the list by Ferentz.
The Broncos (1-3) haven’t played since Oct. 1. If they play Sunday, they’ll have had 16 days between games, one day longer than Tennessee’s layoff before the Titans beat Buffalo on Tuesday night following the NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak, which affected two dozen members of the organization.
Denver’s layoff is the longest in the league since 2001, when the NFL postponed all games on the weekend following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Three teams — the Saints, Steelers and Buccaneers — had byes when play resumed a week later, so they all had 20 days between games that year. Of those three, only the Steelers won in their return to action.
Indianapolis closed its practice facility, then the four retests came back negative and the building reopened.
Coach Frank Reich did not identify who had the false positives but acknowledged if it wasn’t a player, it was someone who worked closely with the players. He did say the four were kept out of the facility.
Reich had started making contingency plans to play the Bengals on Monday or Tuesday, and also rearranged Friday’s schedule. Meetings were conducted virtually and after the second set of results came back, the Colts went through a lighter-than-normal practice at team headquarters while wearing masks.
“It just made sense that we could jog through, get all the looks we needed to get, get our bodies going a little bit, get the heart rate going a little bit but not going full speed,” Reich said. “It would have had to been masks under the helmet, so I just felt like it was the right thing to do — not go full speed with the mask under the helmet.”
The Browns, who played the Colts on Sunday, had zero positive tests Friday morning and their building was open. The negatives included one for star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who was ill and sent home Thursday and not allowed to practice Friday.
Atlanta resumed in-person work under more stringent safety measures.
“Just with the intensive regulations, the mask protocol is in high effect,” interim coach Raheem Morris said. “We have to do some of those different type of deals. Masks on the field, player separation on the field. The in-person meetings only in two areas: The team meeting room and the indoor facility. All of those things we had to implement.
“Everything dealing with the disease and the COVID and what we’ve got to deal with I will follow to the highest and protect the team at all costs, even if it means shutting down a practice like yesterday.”
The Falcons play Sunday at Minnesota.
Rookie defensive tackle Marlon Davidson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday and a second person, who is not a player, subsequently tested positive.
The Panthers have guard/centre Tyler Larsen on the reserve/COVID-19 list, five days after he played against Atlanta.
“I know a lot of people have had their lives interrupted in a very negative way, whether it be through the illness itself, whether it be through losing their job, whether it be through having to take a pay cut,” Fangio said. “You know, nobody deserves that. And some small businesses, people who have worked their whole lives to establish a business are really struggling right now. And I know some small business owners from all over the country where I’ve been, and they’re struggling.
“And luckily here in the NFL so far as players and coaches, we haven’t missed any paychecks, so we’re just going to keep fighting through and consider us lucky. And yes, we’ve been inconvenienced, there are a lot of protocols to follow, some of them can be a little overbearing at times but they’re necessary.
“And so I think in the big picture, we’ve been lucky.”
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Dennis Waszak Jr., Sports Writers Mike Marot, Steve Reed and George Henry and freelancer Gethin Coolbaugh contributed to this report.
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Barry Wilner, The Associated Press